House panel approves gaming compact amid ‘open legal question’

gambling gaming cards chips
The Tribe said the compact is still a good deal for the state even if sports betting gets struck down.

A lobbyist-packed committee room in the recently opened Capitol provided the backdrop for a House panel’s approval of new laws to enact a 30-year agreement about gaming in the state.

The agreement, also called a compact, is a result of negotiations between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The House Select Subcommittee on the Seminole Gaming Compact Monday approved a bill (HB 1A) to implement the compact.

The House committee’s approval is a positive sign for the overall ratification of the compact, which is expected to be voted on Wednesday. Democratic representatives Mike Greco, Anna Eskamani, Daisy Morales and Felicia Robinson voted no.

The bill has one more committee stop before being considered by the entire House. A Senate companion bill was approved earlier in the day.

But in-state forces aren’t the only ones at play. U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, must sign off on the agreement under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA), which allows the Legislature to negotiate contracts for “casino gambling on tribal lands.”

But it’s that stipulation — “on tribal lands” — that could end up being a sticking point. Because some provisions of the compact allow sports betting at pari-mutuel facilities that are not located on tribal land under the idea that the servers that are used for the bets are sitting on tribal lands.

Rep. Sam Garrison who co-sponsors the bills admitted the provision is an “open legal question.”

George Skibine, an expert on the IGRA, was hired by the state to  provide guidance about the federal processes. Skibine testified during committee.

“That issue is going to be an issue that the (federal) department pays very close attention to,” Skibine said. “One thing the state and the Tribe may want to do is seek technical advice from the Department of the Interior.”

Jim Allen, the Seminole Tribe of Florida CEO of Seminole Gaming and Chairman of Hard Rock International, testified to assuage concerns lawmakers might have.

“We believe the actual transaction of the bet occurs at our servers, similar to other states,” Allen said. “The conferences that we had with Interior, we think there is a high probability they will approve this.”

Allen said the Seminole Tribe had been in contact with the U.S. Department of the Interior, the federal agency that will review the compact, throughout negotiations over the compact.

But even if the U.S. Department of the Interior does approve the compact, it could still be challenged in court under the idea that the addition of sports betting could be viewed as an “expansion” of gaming, which, under the Florida constitution, must be approved by voters.

“Yes, I would say legally it’s an expansion but, frankly, I think it’s offset by the $7 billion sports wagering that’s already happening in the state,” Allen said, referring to a number that includes both wins and losses, and comes from research by the American Gaming Association.

Though Allen also admitted, “We believe, and we certainly respect there could be a different interpretation.”

John Sowinski, president of a group called No Casinos has a different interpretation. No Casinos is already threatening to challenge the compact in court even if the compact does get ratified. Sowinski said that the compact violates the amendment, which says any expansion of gambling would have to be approved by Florida voters. No Casinos is the group that worked to get Amendment 3 passed in 2018.

But Allen also said the way the contract is structured, even if sports betting is struck down through a court challenge or by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the ratification of the compact would still not be a risk to the state because the Tribe would still hold up the revenue share portion of the agreement.

“If we were not to prevail in a state or federal court for the purpose of sports betting being authorized, the Tribe has already stated it will honor the revenue share from our land-based casinos at a minimum. That’s $400 million a year,” Allen said.

This could be an indicator of how sure the Tribe is that the agreement will be approved by Interior because the Tribe is currently paying the state nothing. The new agreement — even without sports betting — will cost the Tribe over $400 million per year. Plus, it opens up some other types of gaming to pari-mutuel permit holders — gaming the Tribe currently has a monopoly on, which means the main benefit to the Tribe is sports betting.

But with so many stakeholders, the legalities involved could be a never-ending process.

“I do think it is realistic to say, look, ‘will this document need to be amended or changed sometime in the next 30 years?’ And there is precedent, 100% … that that will occur,” Allen said.

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for FloridaPolitics.com. Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected]



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